Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian’

Photo: Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor.
“Trail maintainer Russell Riggs digs an impromptu drain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, May 1, 2022. The drain helps water gently slope down the mountain and off the trail, limiting erosion,” CSM reports.

I grew up at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains and although I never became a serious hiker, I always loved walking in the woods there. The Ramapo Mountains are part of the Appalachians. Today we learn how volunteers maintain the famed Appalachian Trail. Even in a pandemic.

Noah Robertson has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “The view from Jewell Hollow overlook is hard to beat. More than 3,000 feet above ground in Shenandoah National Park, it’s a 180-degree window into miles of valley and mountains. Surrounded by a mossy stone fence and hiking trails, the sight is one of the best in Virginia.

“But today, Kris English isn’t focused on that. Instead, she’s looking at dirt – grassy green to tan to gravelly brown. 

“She pauses when the ground gets dark. Telling her three-person crew to stop, she teaches them to study dirt like paint swatches (every artist needs a canvas). Darker dirt is wetter dirt. Wetter dirt means the trail will erode faster. 

“Then Ms. English, a technical trail specialist for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, shows them how to dig a drain. 

“Grabbing a 4-foot hybrid rake known as a McLeod, she clears debris in wide brushstrokes and carves a gentle slope. Five minutes later there’s a comet-shaped channel to guide water down the mountain. …

“Ms. English, leading a training session that morning in early May, helped add a few volunteers to the roster of those who routinely preserve the Appalachian Trail – the East Coast’s 85-year-old, 2,200-mile hikers’ paradise. Her role is professional, but each year a 14-state network of trail crews from Georgia to Maine volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours to keep the trail sustainable, accessible, and clean. 

The pandemic has made it harder. When indoor gatherings were off limits, people went outdoors in record numbers. And, not knowing basic hiking etiquette, they made a mess. 

“That hasn’t stopped the volunteers. Last fiscal year, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which oversees 240 miles of the trail – 101 of which are in Shenandoah National Park – amassed 2,000 more volunteer hours than it did the year before the pandemic. [To] Wayne Limberg, one of the PATC’s district managers in Shenandoah National Park, … the response shows that people understand the Appalachian Trail’s inherent contract. It offers humans an almost unrivaled opportunity to interact with nature. But that agreement takes preservation. 

“ ‘We want to make sure that it can be enjoyed by those of us living now and also future generations,’ says Mr. Limberg, who helped Ms. English lead the training session in May. ‘Trails need to be maintained.’ …

“Humans want to see nature. But nature doesn’t always appreciate the interest. Trails solve that problem by concentrating folks into a single, relatively small path, she says. The arrangement maximizes people’s exposure to nature and minimizes their impact. 

“But this is a fragile agreement. Humans – particularly new hikers – can disturb the forest with litter, graffiti, music, and millions of footprints. Nature, for its part, will always try to take the trail back with weeds, moving water that erodes the path, and fallen trees known as ‘blowdowns.’ 

“Hence, the need for trails creates a need for trail maintainers. And trail maintainers need training. 

“After a series of safety tips, Ms. English walks her group to a set of tools. … The fire rake’s harsh triangles help clear gravel and debris. The mattock’s two ends can dig earth and tear roots. …

“ ‘I could nerd out about tools for a minute,’ she says. And briefly she does, even posing in proper technique – like the relaxed stance of a surfer, not the hunch of an ‘old witch.’

“Maintainers follow several simple rules. Preserve a 4-foot-by-8-foot rectangular ‘trail prism’ free of weeds and fallen trees so hikers can freely walk. Gather litter. Report anything they can’t fix.

“And, perhaps most important of all, guide water. Rain needs to flow down the backslope and off the edge, not pool on the treadway. Otherwise, the path will erode, gather debris, or change shape entirely as months of nature junk accumulates. 

“Official policy is that the treadway should slope down at a 5-degree angle. The reality is almost never that precise. If they want an impromptu level, Ms. English says, a half-filled, transparent water bottle will work.

“Ms. English, Mr. Limberg, and the crew’s other two members remove a rickety log ‘water bar’ and replace it with a fresh channel. Pulling the log up, Ms. English finds two curled millipedes. Mr. Limberg finds a AA battery. 

“In the last two years, litter like that has only become more common. ​​… The motto for seasoned hikers is ‘leave no trace.’ But many of the new visitors during the pandemic hadn’t yet learned the code. The Appalachian Trail has many access points and can’t record each hiker. But the multiple trail maintainers interviewed by the Monitor described a clear increase in use over the last two years. With it, too, they found an increase in waste and degradation – from little bags of dog poop left in a stack at the trailhead to spray-painted boulders. 

“ ‘When you see stuff that frustrates you, you don’t like it, but you realize that’s why I’m here,’ says Jim Fetig, who manages the PATC’s program of paid seasonal trail ambassadors known as ‘ridgerunners.’ ‘You just rise to the occasion and take care of it and move on.’

“To Mr. Limberg, the good news is that trail maintenance is getting back to its natural state. When national and state parks closed at the beginning of the pandemic, his trail crew’s work stopped as well. Even when things reopened, there were capacity limits and required social distancing. …

“It’s been more than 20 years since Mr. Limberg joined the PATC. Two decades of maintenance have reminded him that ‘the mountain always wins.’ No matter how many times he digs drains, whacks weeds, and lifts litter, the trail will need more work. It’s humbling.  But it also gives him a connection to the land he might not otherwise have.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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